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Cold Water Swimming, It'll Be Fine!

In this blog I tell of my first experience of open water swimming in Spring of 2022. Read on to find out how I seriously underestimated how the cold water would affect me.

I had been wanting to start swimming in open water for a while. I had read all about the health benefits, physical and mental and I wanted in. It would fit in perfectly with my mindfulness practice.

I had planned to start the previous year but it got later and later and before I knew it it was October and the water was just too cold.

So this year I was ready and prepared for starting early and actually getting myself down to our local lake. I enlisted my son to come with me as advice said not to swim alone. He is always up for a challenge and I knew this was something he would also enjoy.

I booked us in for our inductions one Sunday morning in early May and off we went in our swimming costumes down to the lake with little more what a towel, the clothes we were wearing and a bottle of water each.

The sun was shining and the slight breeze in the air wasn't too chilly for an early May morning. The water temperature was showing as 16.3 degrees and I'll be honest, I wasn't too sure how cold or warm that actually was compared to when I have ventured into the sea on a beautiful hot summers day at the seaside.

We collected our swim hats and floats from the kiosk and headed over to some benches to remove our clothes and get ready to get into the water.

There was a group of about 12 of us, some looking eager to get in, others looking a little apprehensive.

We all gathered on the waters edge for about 10 minutes listening to the safety advice from the two instructors and I was most grateful for the warm sunshine as I stood there in my swimming costume trying to adjust my swim hat over my ears so that I could actually hear what was being said.

My son leaned over to me with a slight look of amusement on his face and said "my fingers are so cold they are giving me goosebumps!"

I too had also given myself goosebumps by touching my arms with my chilly fingers and at that moment I actually started to question what we were about to do. If chilly fingers where making me shiver what was that water going to do?!

Finally the moment came when our instructors told us all to go ahead and get into the water.

This, sadly, is not how we all looked getting in!

It was more like this!

Okay, there was no snow but I was relieved when the water touched my toes and I didn't have to lift them out before putting them back in to get used to the cold.

Great, first step done.

Now to walk in up to my waist.

A little bit harder but I didn't embarrass myself by shrieking or screaming.

I became aware I was taking a long time over this step and felt I needed to get a move on or I might be stuck there for ever. I looked around and everyone else seemed to be enjoying it. I looked over at my son and he was already in right up to his neck and attempting to put his face under!

Okay, I can do this.

The instructors had told us to splash ourselves with the water to get used to it before going under and at that point every part of me was saying don't go any further! So I took their advice and splashed my arms, chest and face.


I hesitated for a few moments longer but when I looked around at everyone else again, most of the others were already in so I just took the plunge and went for it.

Let me tell you now that 16.3 degrees is definitely colder than the sea on a beautiful hot summers day!

I concentrated on my breathing while adapting to the temperature and managed to keep my shoulders down under the water for about 30 seconds before I had to stand up again. I bobbed down under the water a couple more times and came to the conclusion that it was bloody cold!

Right, now I just needed to start moving. I was ready to (and needed to) start swimming.

Oh but wait! First we all had to lie on our backs in a star fish position and practise waving for help!

The water on the top of my head was slightly uncomfortable (understatement) and after what seemed like 5 minutes (probably only 30 seconds in reality) we were all told to start our swim around the lake.

Well as soon as I started moving the whole experience changed.

It was amazing. The cold water felt so lovely on my skin and it was pure bliss. I felt so free.

Photo of the lake where we were swimming

I started chatting to another lady as we casually swam along towards our first goal, which was in the center of the lake, a little submerged island where we would be able to reach the floor and take a break.

I looked ahead of me and could see my son, a strong breaststroke swimmer, going along at a steady pace. Lovely.

About half way to the submerged island I started to feel a little tired, my arms and across my shoulders where aching and my feet and hands were feeling a little cold. I decided to float on my back for a minute to relieve the tension across my shoulder and give my arms a rest.

That worked but it made me feel cold again so I continued swimming as before.

After about 10 minutes we all finally made it to the island and I looked at the rest of the lake ahead of us and decided that I wasn't going to swim any further and would just head back. I was starting to feel really cold and tired.

A few others made the same decision. I poked my son on the shoulder, who was staring out into the distance looking at the rest of the lake and asked him if he was going on.

To my relief he said no and we watched as half the group continued on to swim round the rest of the lake.

When my son turned around he looked a little pale and his teeth were starting to chatter. I too was feeling extremely cold as we had been stopped for a good 2 or 3 minutes and the instructor who was coming back with us told us to start moving again as he could see we were getting cold.

I was grateful to start moving again, however this time the cold had really set in and it didn't feel so lovely anymore. All I could think about was getting back to the shore and getting warm.

To take my mind off it I started chatting to the instructor, who was on a paddle board, telling him all about how we were training for a half marathon.

All the while, my son who had been swimming strongly ahead of me on the way out was falling further and further behind and I kept stopping to ask him if he was alright. He said he was but I could see he was very cold and looked exhausted. So I suggested we stop for a minute and hold on to our floats to rest.

We did this but couldn't stay like it for long as by now we were both so cold the main goal was to get out as soon as possible. Luckily we were quite close to the shore and it didn't take much longer to get back.

As I stepped out on to the small sandy area I was hit by a wave of dizziness and almost lost my balance. My son plodded out next to me and looked in a state of shock!

We shivered our way over to where we had left our stuff and started fumbling around trying to get our towels out of our bags.

Neither one of us could feel our hands so this proved quite challenging!

Towel finally retrieved and I made a mental note to leave it on top of everything next time (next time! Haha!).

My son had managed to get his towel out too and was trying to say something to me through chattering teeth and a shaking jaw.

My brain wasn't processing what he was saying and after 3 attempts of what I thought he was saying "I feel ashamed" he picked up his stuff and went and stood in the sunshine.

Oh right, he was actually saying "we're in the shade". I was quite relieved as I felt now wasn't the ideal time for a deep and meaningful conversation.

So we had made a few mistakes on our first cold water swim. The first was our towels buried at the bottom of our bags, the second was not having easy shoes to put back on our feet.

After what seemed like an age of struggling to get my completely numb feet back into my trainers using my completely numb hands, I was now shivering even more than when I got out of the water.

By this point my son had given up trying to get his trainers back on and was making his way across the gravel path with bare feet!

At this stage I want point out mistakes 3 and 4.

Mistake 3 was not wearing layers of easy to put on clothing and mistake 4 was taking a cold bottle of water each instead of a nice warm flask of tea!

I found out later that our bodies continue to lose heat for up to 20 minutes after getting out of cold water so it's really important to do everything you can to help your body start to get back to a normal temperature.

After another 10 minutes or so we had managed to sort ourselves out so we were ready to get back into the car and drive home.

But now I was shaking so much I was wondering if driving was even possible.

We sat in the car with the heating on full blast for a while contemplating what had just happened and wondering if we were in the early stages of hyperthermia.

I did manage the 10 minute drive home, although in hindsight it probably wasn't the most sensible thing I've ever done.

As soon as we got home I made myself a coffee and my son warmed up some pasta bake and ate that. He said he felt instantly better after eating something hot and his shaking stopped about 10 minutes later.

The coffee didn't have the same effect on me and it took an hour before my body had stopped shaking and I felt normal again. During this time the soles of my feet were numb and it felt like I had cotton wool stuffed inside my socks! Weird.

All in all I would have to say my first experience of cold water swimming was a mixture of emotions.

I'm pleased to say that the main emotion that stood out was how lovely it was when I first started swimming and I realised that we should not have stayed in for so long on our first swim.

I'm pleased to say there was a next time and the whole experience was great.

My conclusion...

We were in the water for about 30 minutes on that first swim and it was a little too long. 15-20 minutes would have been enough at that temperature but we had swum too far to get back within this time. I'm just so glad we didn't attempt to swim round the whole lake! If we had only been in the water for half the time the experience would have been a little different.

If you are thinking of taking up cold water swimming, listen to your body, know your limits and get out if you start feeling uncomfortable.

We didn't take any photos of that first swim but these are from the next time we went.

I'm hoping this blog made you laugh a little but also helped if you are thinking of going swimming in a cold lake, you now won't make the same mistakes that we made.

If you would like to learn more about how mindfulness can help you, I have a lovely free Facebook group where I share daily quotes, talk about my own experiences, share meditation exercises and give you the opportunity to reflect on your own day/experiences. You can join here

If you would like to receive a copy of my free guide to a better nights sleep you can get it here, this will also activate several emails from me where you will learn all about me and my journey with mindfulness.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. Why not check out some of my other ones here.

Lots of love

Fiona xx

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